Just jotting down thoughts here for lack of a better place to put them. Recently there was a bit of a kerfuffle in certain Protestant circles when Hank Hanegraaff (I’d never heard of him, but he is or was a major player in American Protestantism, apparently) converted to my own faith, Eastern Orthodoxy. The general response of Protestants was that he had “left Christianity,” and there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about incense and idolatry and whatnot.
Most of this is tiresome and impossible to resolve because of Protestants’ and Orthodox Christians’ radically different beliefs concerning the ultimate source of “authority” for Christians. I’m not going to go into the sola this-and-that rabbit hole. However, the concept of “penal substitution” did get brought up, and that seems worth discussion.
“Penal substitution” is, as far as I can tell, a Protestant refinement of an older Catholic idea (“the Satisfaction”) which Orthodox theologians generally credit to/blame on a fellow called Anselm of Canterbury. The basic idea in both, and in all other variants, is that humanity’s fallenness was so offensive to God that a price had to be paid, namely death, because God and/or His sense of honor and/or the justice of the cosmos had been offended. Jesus paid that price, the balance was cleared, and now humanity is free to get back into God’s good graces on a per-person basis.
If I’m phrasing this poorly, it’s because the whole mindset is alien to me. We Orthodox do not have what is called “the forensic model” of sin. Sin is, to us, not a crime in need of punishment, but a disease in need of a cure, caused by our own estrangement from the Creator. We were not made to live apart from God, and like a fish that has leapt out of the water, we thrash, and suffer, and die. We are too confused and blinded by our own pain to even properly understand our circumstances, so God became incarnate to rescue us. I’m not going to get into the details of soteriology here–I don’t totally understand it myself, assuming any human really does–but here are some offhand objections, from my Orthodox perspective, to satisfaction, penal substitution, and all the rest. Note that I cannot guarantee you will not be offended by any of this!
It implies discord among the Trinity. God is one essence, three persons. But for the Satisfaction to work, two of those persons have to be working at (no pun intended) cross purposes. God the Father is angry and baying for blood. Jesus is on our side. I don’t know how the Holy Spirit fits into all this. Isn’t it just a little weird for God to fight with Himself?
It limits the power of God. The common language of satisfaction is that God was under some manner of obligation, that He could not simply wipe the slate clean but had to appease His “honor” or some concept of “justice” independent of His own will. Anselm derived his beliefs from the prevailing honor culture of medieval Europe, where any slur had to be avenged with blood to maintain one’s public face. It made sense then, I’m sure, but why do we need it now? And why should God need it at any time? Or is it “wrath”? Could God not control His own temper?
It contradicts the Gospel message. When the Prodigal Son came back, his father did not rob the older brother of his inheritance to make up for what the younger one had wasted on whores and liquor. The old man runs out and throws himself on the boy’s neck, forgetting the insult and the waste. The man who owed thousands of talents was not expected to pay them back at any point, provided he forgave others’ debts. We are expected to forgive seventy times seven. How monstrous a hypocrite would God be, to demand of us what He could or would not do Himself?
It makes no moral sense. This is the most common Orthodox objection that I know of. God is the offended, innocent party here, assuming one follows the forensic model. But He’s also the one “paying the penalty.” It’s as if, at the end of World War II, we had rounded up all the Nazis, found them guilty, and then let them off the hook by dressing a Jew in a Nazi uniform and letting them torture him to death. Essentially the price is paid by doubling down on the crime, then identifying with the victim. Nothing further from justice is imaginable.
Against this we have the weight of various passages in Scripture, mostly in Paul’s epistles. Paul does indeed use the language of substitution and penalties paid with blood. And Christ is indeed our Passover Lamb. But there’s such a thing as taking an analogy too literally.